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Opinion: We can’t watch our world go up in smoke, we must build better climate resilience

As heatwaves, wildfires and smoke events become our new normal, we must urgently rethink how we make our cities and homes safe and comfortable
The massive fire at Donnie Creek in B.C., picture earlier this summer | BC Wildfire Service

This has been a year like no other.

July was the hottest summer on record, with soaring global temperatures creating tinder-dry conditions primed for ignition. News stories about fire and smoke have captivated attention around the world, from thick smoke encasing the Statue of Liberty in June to the Greece wildfire tragedy in August. 

Canada’s forests have been ablaze since spring. This year is the worst fire season in B.C. history, with almost 1.4 million hectares of land burned and counting, and inhabitants of Yellowknife and West Kelowna dealing with massive evacuation orders due to out-of-control wildfires.

With new emergency declarations every year, extreme heatwaves, wildfires and smoke are quickly becoming our new normal across Canada – and climate scientists project this will only get worse under future climate change.

All these events are a deafening call to action about the climate crisis. But is it loud enough yet to galvanize real investment and change?

Our province is choking on its own smoke with terrible impacts on our health, especially among those who work outside, seniors, elders, infants, young children and people with medical and mental health conditions. Poor building construction has itself created an epidemic of asthma through condensation and mould, and now building owners and designers are grappling with how to protect occupants from extreme heat and smoke. The death of nine-year-old Carter Vigh from an asthma attack made worse by wildfire smoke is a tragic reminder of the fatal impacts poor air quality can have.

Heatwaves and wildfire smoke are also particularly concentrated in urban areas. Vast pavements and rows of glass-fronted office buildings magnify air temperatures to create an urban “heat island” effect, where smoke trapped by urban density mingles with pollution from vehicle and building exhaust.

Extreme heat, wildfires and smoke must become core considerations when we design and retrofit buildings across Canada. However, while our industry is starting to design buildings for extreme heat, it is further behind on smoke.

We need to look urgently at buildings, new and old. Starting with new buildings is good, but it concentrates benefits in areas experiencing growth and development, such as the Lower Mainland, where most new residential construction is underway. 

Two of the key components of today’s most energy-efficient buildings are air tightness and controlled filtered ventilation air delivered via a heat-recovery ventilation unit. However, most buildings we live in today did not factor this in their construction. Instead, they leak like sieves, allowing freezing-cold air to seep in during winter and to be warmed with lots of heat, typically provided by natural gas or oil-fired boilers and furnaces.

These cause lots of carbon emissions, the very thing that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. And those same holes that let in the cold air in winter allow smoke and other outdoor pollutants into your office and home during wildfires.

Heat pumps also provide cooling, vital in these ever-hotter summers and paramount if we need to keep the windows closed during wildfires. With windows closed, we still need air, which is provided by efficient heat-recovery ventilation units that recover 90 per cent of the heat from bathroom exhausts. Exactly the right amount of filtered air is delivered to each living space and bedroom and exhausted out of every bathroom and kitchen. During wildfires, we can insert higher-performing filters to deal with fine particulate matter.

Retrofitting existing older buildings to include cooling and central air filtration is much harder and often involves invasive and costly renovation that is unrealistic for most building owners. Therefore, most building owners and tenants rely on portable air-conditioning units and air filters to keep indoor conditions comfortable.

A number of agencies in B.C., including the province, BC Hydro and Vancouver Coastal Health, responded to this demand this year by providing free, publicly funded portable air conditioners to help people without built-in cooling. While these systems go a long way to improve occupant health and safety during heatwaves, they do not address smoke and they bring high energy demand that increases user costs and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Other government agencies are aiming for longer-lasting solutions by setting requirements for building design. For example, the City of Vancouver passed a bylaw last year that requires all new buildings to have built-in air conditioning that is electricity powered and provides low-carbon heating and cooling as of January 2025.

These sorts of policies and programs will increase as local governments react to the extreme health impacts of heatwaves, wildfires and smoke in their communities. These policy approaches must go hand in hand with design; developers who already use these approaches to climate-proof their buildings will be better positioned as new policies and requirements come into play.

Moving forward, we must design and build our buildings to much higher standards, such as the German Passiv Haus standard. This uses “passive” design strategies like exterior shading and more efficient windows to keep buildings comfortable with 90 per cent less energy use. They achieve this by being six times tighter than a typical newly constructed building and nearly 20 times tighter than old leaky homes. Our work at Clayton Community Centre in Surrey is a great example of the benefits of adopting this standard.

On top of that, we now need a sharper focus on how to build resilience within our existing buildings. This will require innovative new policies and technologies that bring passive design strategies and energy-efficient cooling and air quality retrofits within reach of building owners.  

Even as individuals, we can contribute to making our buildings safer, whether by implementing lower-cost strategies like window shading and portable units, or by accessing government incentive programs to install energy-efficient upgrades in our homes and businesses. How bad do climate impacts in our backyard have to get before we see a mass movement for real, lasting change?

Stuart Hood is vice-president, institutional, at Introba; Robin Hawker is an associate principal, climate resilience, at the firm.